I remember the staccato pumping action of the rifle, pkoo-pkoo-pkoo-pkoo-pkoo-pkoo-pkoo-pkoo-pkoo, at the beginning, followed by the brassy baritones and French horns, strings joining in to conclude the chorus, to proclaim the appearance of . . . The Rifleman. The town of North Fork is cradled in rugged hands and safe from the bitter taste of evil that might appear over the horizon. It’s late Saturday afternoon as I plop on my tummy, arms folded against the black wool carpet with the rose-wreath pattern to prop my chin, and I settle in for another 30 minutes with the father of all fathers and his son, Mark, a boy of about my age. My town feels safe today, too.
It might be smoky Indian summer, dry air tinged with smoldering leaves, adding an October flavor to the sulfurous glow spewing from the valley below into the northern horizon from the National Tube Works along the Monongahela River. It’s 1960 and I am enjoying my weekend away from seventh grade classes at Centennial School. We are changing classes with five different teachers this year, just as we will next year when I go the junior high. I even have a man teacher this year, my first ever—Mr. Guthrie for science. Besides teaching science and telling us stories, Mr. Guthrie even drank beer a couple times with my dad in Lofstrom’s Beer Garden at the corner of Bailey Avenue and Flagler Street. I was amazed to learn that a teacher could drink beer.
More amazing than that are the feats accomplished by Lucas McCain each week as he teaches his boy, Mark, how to be an upstanding member of the community in their idyllic little Western town that rises like a delicious mirage in front of my eyes. Mark’s mother was taken by a sickness at some indefinite past time, so Lucas and Mark became a one-parent household long before it was fashionable. Father and son cooked wholesome meals from the crops they grew and the cattle they tendered. After watching his first homestead burn to embers at the hands of evil cattle ranchers, McCain first made certain that the culprits felt the burn of justice and then rebuilt his home on the same land, showing young Mark the way to hold ground as well as how to persevere in the art of building.
I remember the time when Mark had drifted away from his assigned fence-mending duties, the son glowing over the dusty Southern California TV landscape. I see Mark dangling from a dangerous rock formation, crying out for help. Two men on horseback come upon the scene. The younger, named Will, an as yet unknown Michael Landon, dismounts from his horse, despite the protests of his elder brother, grabs a rope and ties a life loop, twirling it down the cliff to the stranded boy. Mark slips into the loop and tightens it, and he is pulled toward the summit by the young stranger. As the rescuer approaches Mark to lift him, the young man loses his footing and falls to a rocky ledge, crying out with the sickening thud of a broken leg. Will’s brother jumps off his mount and twirls a lasso around his fallen brother; he and Mark then pull the lame rescuer to the summit.
When the three arrive at the McCain homestead, Lucas McCain is grateful for the young man’s act of heroism and offers to get a doctor and to allow Will to stay there until his leg has mended. The older brother says “’no doctor”’ and continues on his way, promising to return for Will in a few weeks. Unknown to McCain, the two brothers had robbed a bank, and the older one tells Will to stash the stolen money in The Rifleman’s barn for safekeeping.
During his stay, Will meets a neighbor and friend of the McCain’s, a pretty young woman, named Ann Barrett, who has ridden on horseback to the McCain ranch to invite Lucas and Mark to Sunday dinner. Ann’s eyes smile full of promise as she exchanges polite conversation with the unexpected guest at the McCain ranch. Plot development must be quick in a 30-minute story. A few days later, Ann returns—this time to include Will in the invitation for Sunday dinner. Against his true feelings, Will declines the invitation because he is expecting that his brother will have returned for him before Sunday.
Meanwhile, Will earns his keep by helping out around the McCain ranch. He plays checkers with young Mark and decides to carve out a homemade bow and arrow for the boy. By the time that Will is well enough to drive the McCain wagon into South Fork to procure supplies at the general store, and having met Sally there, he is yearning to trade in his life as an apprentice outlaw for the apple-pie life he has experienced at the McCain ranch.
Feeling squeezed into a vice by his conflicting thoughts, Will flies off the handle one afternoon when Mark approaches him and asks about his progress on the bow. McCain has witnessed the scene from inside the house and decides to have a man-to-man talk with Will. McCain knows that Will wants a better life, but tells Will that he is just too afraid to give up the life of crime that has hold of him. When the brother returns, Will makes a stand, refusing to leave with his older brother and accomplices.
When he also refuses to retrieve the stolen money, the brother and two comrades draw pistols, but Lucas McCain is faster and more agile with his rifle. Three bodies lie moldering in the blazing sun, their faces kissing dust. Will agrees to return the stolen money to the marshal and face the law. The sweet music of the epilogue shows that Will is ready to mount his horse for the journey back to the Texas town where he and his brother’s gang had robbed the bank. Will reassures Ann that he will return for her. Ann’s eyes are brimming over with patience and admiration.
Of course, young Mark and I have been watching and learning—this past Saturday, just as we did 56 years ago, learning the values that good fathers teach by what they practice more than by what they say. Unlike many child actors who do not fare well in later life, Johnny Crawford seems to have carved out a meaningful life, and I am thrilled to have learned that Chuck Connors and he had just as warm and authentic friendship off the set. I feel good about remembering both of them as I knew them then—my Saturday friend and his perfect dad.
And I, I am not a dad, unless you consider my role as “cat daddy” to two black-and-white domestic short hairs. But I know a good father when I see one—like the thirty-something-year-old who hoisted his chubby-legged toddler high overhead at the Peter Mawanga concert at a dampened St. Clair Park one Friday evening this summer. I saw love riveting like The Rifleman’s silver bullets from his eyes as they were transfixed on his son with an air of fatherly authority, tenderness, and pride.